In two separate assessments of albums released earlier this year, I both raised the theory that making more than one album with Jack Antonoff producing might be a bad idea, and that Lorde’s Solar Power would be the deciding factor of whether his status as pop’s favorite producer has run its course. While I harbor no grudges against Antonoff, as he’s produced some albums that I love (including Lorde’s Melodrama), Solar Power makes it apparent that both these fears have been confirmed. While Antonoff was able to create fantastic results by teaming up with modern pop’s biggest female stars, including Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and St. Vincent, each of the follow-ups to those albums, which Antonoff also produced, have been less exciting. Granted, none of those albums were complete busts by any measure, but they all feel a little soulless, and Solar Power might be the most blatant example.
That said, you absolutely cannot just blame Jack Antonoff for these follow-up albums being a little dull. There’s no doubt in my mind that an album like Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent was completely Annie Clark’s idea conceptually, as was Reputation by Taylor Swift. These artists clearly had something in their head that they saw as the next step in their evolution, and considering how adeptly Antonoff had helped nurture their previous albums, seemed like a perfect fit. I think the same is true in the case of Solar Power, an album that Lorde has specifically conceived as a very sun-soaked ode to leisurely living and wellness culture. So the fact that this very specific vibe is brought to life ably by Antonoff makes it hard to point fingers at him, especially when Lorde has made it clear that she “didn’t make a Jack Antonoff record”, she made a Lorde record with his help.
I also have to speculate that the limpness of this album could also be influenced by the fact that it seemed like it was primed to be the perfect soundtrack to a joyful Summer when its release was announced back in June. However, this summer has proven to be a mixed bag of both normalcy and misery, as the Delta variant kept the pandemic persisting into August while crushing the dream of Hot Vax Summer (or Shot Girl Summer as I preferred to call it). That said, I can’t just blame the Delta variant on this album not hitting that hard, since I don’t recall being that taken with Solar Power‘s first singles when they were released earlier on in the Summer.
That said, there are a few moments on the album that do tap into Lorde’s talent as a songwriter. “The Path” is a nice mood-setter to open the album with, but is let down by the fact that it leads into the album’s title track, which never becomes quite as anthemic as it wants to be. “Secrets of A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” finds a welcome balance between an actual catchy chorus and some nice, slinkering guitar work that complements Lorde’s more playful lyrics nicely. But the album overall is just too… chill. This is kind of a weird criticism to aim at an artist that built her career on minimalism and the feeling that her songs could have been recorded in her bedroom. But even that first Lorde album is concise in its use of pop melodies and adolescent obsessions, while Solar Power just feels like it’s kind of aimlessly drifting along to its own content.
This makes it feel like a big reason why this album is not as potent as its predecessors is that Lorde seems happier now. Both Pure Heroine and Melodrama were bathed in a kind of teenage angst that helped transform pop music into a safe space where singers could feel free to bask in the kind of moroseness that’s often antithetical to Top 40 music. Here, most of that is gone, though there are a few glimpses of Lorde’s cynicism towards a happiness borne of oneness with nature while also reveling in it. Obviously, I am glad for her sake that Lorde appears to be happy. Though I wish she had figured out a way to channel that into an album that felt a little more applicable to those of us that had a very traumatic year and are still dealing with it.
It’s hard to not look at this album and add it to the pile of somewhat disappointing pop albums to come out in 2021. While I would say Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever was a bit more suited to this lost year than most, it still seems that Taylor Swift’s Folklore remains the high mark for pop albums released in the pandemic era. That’s also an album where Swift seems to be in a happier place in her life, but is still able to find drama in her songwriting as well as new ways of expressing herself musically. I can’t say this was completely a product of her easing off of Jack Antonoff as her producer of choice, but it ain’t a bad place to start.